There’s an array of seemingly “safe” over-the-counter drugs that are anything but harmless. These drugs are anticholinergic, meaning that they block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the nervous system. This blocks the neurotransmission responsible for involuntary movement of smooth muscle in the lungs, urinary tract, digestive tract, and cardiovascular system.
A recent study published in JAMA Neurology used MRI and PET scans to determine why people taking anticholinergic drugs had lower brain metabolism, poor memory, and higher brain atrophy.
Researchers concluded that anticholinergic drugs can lead to a misdiagnosis of cognitive impairment, and they can also trigger cognitive decline.
Avoiding long-term use of these top three drugs is critical for safeguarding your brain from cognitive decline.
1. Skip the Sleep Aid
Sleep aids like Advil PM and Unisom are anticholinergic and are often used for months or years. The CDC reports that nearly 9 million U.S. adults aged 20 and over use prescription sleep aids; this does not account for the number of adults chronically using over-the-counter sleep aids. We assume that number is much higher than those using prescription sleep drugs because it is estimated that 50-70 million Americans experience sleep problems.
2. Avoid Allergy Meds
Seasonal allergies can be miserable! However, regularly taking allergy medication containing diphenhydramine, like Benadryl, means you’re messing with your nervous system and putting your brain at risk. While there are other allergy medications that don’t interfere with acetylcholine, it’s best to find out how to reduce inflammation and histamines so that allergies lose their power!
3. Ditch the Dramamine
Dimenhydrinate is the active ingredient in Dramamine, the popular motion-sickness medication. While most people aren’t taking Dramamine daily, those with conditions such as Ménière’s disease or other equilibrium problems might consume this drug too often. While this anticholinergic might cool the symptoms of motion sickness, it’s setting you up for mild cognitive impairment and further decline.
Aside from the over-the-counter drugs listed above, many common prescription medications are also anticholinergic: antidepressants, COPD and asthma medications, the pain medication Demerol, and drugs for overactive bladder issues and Parkinson’s disease. For many of these conditions, there are much safer options. Moreover, most conditions have root causes that can be addressed and corrected at the source, so symptoms disappear without using harmful medications. Instead of masking symptoms, I use a functional medicine approach to uncover and correct the imbalances that lead to symptoms like allergies and sleep disturbances.